Export Lager: A Long-Distance Love Affair
For at least a thousand years, the ability to brew beer in excess of local needs and ship it off to distant drinkers has been a valued source of both prestige and cash. Beer is a serious claim to fame in the otherwise unexceptional towns of Burton-on-Trent and Pilsen.
The qualities needed for exportation are one of the many factors that shape certain styles. Because of the expense of packaging, shipping, handling and markup, it generally makes sense to ship off your best beer, so export products have long had a reputation as superior products. In the old days, the voyage itself was a factor, too, as heat, time and jostling have a negative impact on all beer, but less so with a stronger beer. And guess what? This is still true today. A good deal of the everyday European lager we get in the United States is unfresh, at best, when it hits our lips. It doesn’t seem so bad until you go, say, to the Prague and partake of the golden nectar gushing everywhere, or suckle kellerbier straight from a zwickel* in any ol’ Bavarian ratskeller. You know. We get an approximation, nothing more.
All of which is pretty good motivation for brewing your own. But if you’re relentless about tasting everything you can get your hands on, you run into some European lagers that seem to make the trip with a little more aplomb. The most famous of the export lagers, Dortmunder, barely exists in its homeland any more, but several U.S. craft breweries brew tasty versions. I’ve recently been fascinated by Polish lagers that come in a progression of strengths from five percent all the way up to about nine. How do you say “rocket fuel” in Polish? While the strong ones are very good by the standards of malt liquor, my preference is for the ones about six or six-and-a-half percent, historically the classic export beer strength. And glory hallelujah, most of them come with readable date codes!
Export-strength beers exist in Bavaria as well, but pay attention as this is confusing. The old coppery märzen beers, brewed at the end of the winter brewing season, were a little stronger to over-weather the hot summer season, and of course gained worldwide fame as the beer of the Oktoberfest, Munich’s great beer festival. Of late, public taste has been insistent on paler and paler beers, and brewers can only stick to tradition as longs as it sells, which means many Oktoberfest beers are more golden than amber these days. Some brewers have begun offering a classic märzen alongside the modernist Oktoberfest. Others in and out of Munich have started selling golden export-strength beers, typically under the designation spezial (not to be confused with a brewery of that name in Bamberg). Clear enough?
So if you needed justification for a strong, pale Bavarian lager, there it is. But, as always, we’re just looking for something that tastes great, suits the season and makes our friends and us really happy. Export does the job. More malt means bigger flavor, which means you can pile on the hops and still have balance. Lagering means a clean, smooth flavor. You can brew these as simply stronger versions of any pale lager you choose: the austere crispness of a German pils, the sweet ‘n’ spicy floweriness of a Czech pilsener, or the malty goodness of a Munich-style helles. Those recipes are well known and available everywhere. Just bump the quantities of everything up by about twenty percent. You can go further, but then the beer turns into something else.
For our recipe, we’re going to Poland, a country that has long had close and complex relationships with the other lager regions in Europe. The beers there are somewhere between Czech and German-style pilseners, but with a very slight rustic coarseness about them, which I personally find charming. Poland has several hop growing regions in the southern half of the country. The classic variety, Lublin, is named for the largest of these cultivation areas, shares parentage and some aromatic qualities with the Czech Saaz. The other variety available through homebrew channels is Marynka, a moderately high alpha hop (9%) with a clean bitterness and a powerful aroma Michael Jackson described as “…cedary, rooty, almost licoricelike…” Sounds like the start of a recipe to me. We’ll be using a proportion of U.S. six-row malt for a slight grainy bite, along with a little Vienna for a honeyed golden maltiness.
Water is always important, but in a pale bitter beer it can be night and day. Hard, alkaline (carbonate) water should never be used—the carbonate content should be about 60 ppm or less. Totally soft water isn’t good either, as the mash really needs some calcium to help it get going. Normally, a beer of this type would use calcium chloride as opposed to calcium sulfate as the calcium source. Unfortunately, water chemistry is too complex to deal with right here, so you may have some homework to do before you brew.
Note that lager brewing requires plenty of good healthy lager yeast and controllable cool temperatures, which means, for most of us, fermenting in a refrigerator. The fermentation should start out at about 38 °F (3 °C) for the primary, then several weeks at about 50 °F (10 °C) for conditioning. Don’t forget a diacetyl rest, a few days at cellar temperatures towards the end of conditioning to allow the buttery diacetyl to reabsorb into the yeast.
When the beer is finally ready, you can pour a cold one into a tall glass and enjoy the delightful aromas of malt and hops from a far-off land. Bon voyage!
*Small tap on a large aging tank